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Teacher: No longer can I throw my students to the ‘testing wolves’

Veteran teacher Dawn Neely-Randall and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown <a href=""> look at a post</a> Neely-Randall wrote for The Answer Sheet about the reform movement. (Photo by Tom Traut)

Dawn Neely-Randall, who just started her 25th year of teaching, is sick and tired of the effects that obsessive standardized testing is having on her students. She is a member of the Badass Teachers Association,  a national group of more than 51,000 educators who came together to organize resistance to school reform that focuses on using standardized test scores for high-stakes accountability purposes and that ignores the role that poverty plays in student achievement.

In this powerful post she explains how her work as a teacher has been skewed by mandated standardized testing and how students are reacting. One child, she wrote, “sobbed” because she cared so much about her test score, and “it became blatantly obvious how one high-stakes standardized test had just negated the year’s worth of reading confidence and motivation she had worked so hard to attain.”  And, she wrote, “I can no longer be a teacher who tries to build these 10-year-olds up on one hand, but then throws them to the testing wolves with the other.”

Here’s the whole post.

By Dawn Neely-Randall

I’m not a celebrity. I’m not a politician. I’m not part of the 1 percent. I don’t own an education testing company. I am just a teacher and I just want to teach.

My life changed dramatically after a Facebook lament I wrote was published on The Answer Sheet last March. I was explaining how weary I was from the political addiction to mass standardized testing and how educationally abusive it had become to so many of the students in my care.

Last spring, you wouldn’t find the fifth-graders in my Language Arts class reading as many rich, engaging pieces of literature as they had in the past or huddled over the same number of authentic projects as before. Why? Because I had to stop teaching to give them a Common Core Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) online sample test that would prepare them for the upcoming PARCC pilot pre-test which would then prepare them for the PARCC pilot post test – all while taking the official Ohio Achievement Tests. This amounted to  three tests, each  2 ½ hours, in a single week, the scores of which would determine the academic track students would be placed on in middle school the following year.

In addition to all of that, I had to stop their test prep lessons (also a load of fun) to take each class three floors down to our computer lab so they could take the Standardized Testing and Reporting (“STAR”) tests so graphs and charts could be made of their Student Growth Percentile (SGP) which would then provide quantitative evidence to suggest how these 10-year-olds would do on the “real” tests and also surmise the teacher’s (my) affect on their learning.

Tests, tests, and more freakin’ tests.

And this is how I truly feel in my teacher’s heart: the state is destroying the cherished seven hours I have been given to teach my students reading and writing each week,  and these children will never be able to get those foundational moments back. Add to that the hours of testing they have already endured in years past, as well as all the hours of testing they still have facing them in the years to come. I consider this an unconscionable a theft of precious childhood time.

One parent sent me her district’s calendar showing that students would complete 21 mandated (K-3) assessments before a child would even finish third grade.  When I asked an Ohio Department of Education employee about this, she insisted there were not that many tests. When I read them to her one by one from the district’s calendar, she defended her position by saying that some of them were not from her department, but from another one. “But it’s the SAME kid!!!” I told her.

Indeed, it sure seems that school just isn’t for children anymore.

As I sat in my recliner writing about my frustrations all those months ago, I felt that I was sitting alone in a darkened theater watching a horror movie with my students in the starring roles. After it was published, however, it seemed as if the lights had been switched on and I found that the room was full of people from across the nation and they were just as traumatized as I.

Many Ohio teachers told me they were afraid to speak out because it might hurt their rating based on the new Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) framework for scoring (now House Bill 362).  When I, for example, worked through this process last year, I was evaluated based on my students’ test scores as well as the evidence of “teacher performance” my principal had collected on me. One 40-minute lesson alone took me over seven hours to write up.

Since OTES also evaluates teachers based on their “positive rapport” as well as their “active volunteer, community, and family partnerships,” of course, teachers were afraid to speak out against harmful test practices and risk sounding negative and, of course, they worried about not being perceived as a team player if they didn’t want to be a part of test pep rallies or hosting parent PARCC information nights.

When teachers are being rated based on student test scores as well as their own attitudes about such, speaking out becomes a very risky business.

Principals too are afraid to speak out. Why? What if their disgruntlement empowers their staff to rally against all the testing and parents started opting their children out of taking the tests?  In Ohio, a zero is given in place of a score if a student does not take a standardized test. This zero is then averaged into the school’s rating on the state report card, which then affects the district’s rating. Administrators don’t have a union backing them to give them the freedom to advocate on behalf of students; most of them only have term contracts.

Parents were afraid to speak out because they are worried that school officials might consider them trouble makers or, worse, hold it against their child. And parents have no idea how their child’s teacher feels because — back to the beginning — many teachers are afraid to speak out.

One parent told me recently that she asked her daughter’s teacher if she thought her 10-year-old could handle the stress of the new PARCC pilot test and the teacher said she had been advised to say “no comment” when it came to either topic of the Common Core curriculum or testing. (What country do we live in, anyway?!)

Many students didn’t speak out as much as they acted out. Cried. Gave their parents a hard time about going to school. Disengaged in class. Got physically sick. Or became a discipline problem. Struggling students struggled even more.

Last school year, one of my fifth-grade below-level readers was working hard and making great gains. However, during the big Ohio Achievement Assessment in reading at the end of April, when she had already put in about an hour and a half of testing with an hour to go, the stress became too much and she had a total meltdown. As much as I had already reminded her “this is just one test on one day in your life” and “just do your best,” this student was smart enough to know that this “one test” would determine the class she would get into in middle school and I knew she was worried about being pulled out of class for remediation (again).

This child sobbed because she cared so much and watching her suffer became a defining moment for me. It became blatantly obvious how one high-stakes standardized test had just negated the year’s worth of reading confidence and motivation she had worked so hard to attain. I can no longer be a teacher who tries to build these 10-year-olds up on one hand, but then throws them to the testing wolves with the other.

My student had trusted me and jumped through hoops for me all year long, but then in her greatest moment of testing distress, all I could do was hand her some tissues.

A lot of people in our Buckeye state (and country) are making nutty decisions that aren’t at all good for children; ones I feel sure teachers could prove are harmful in a court of law (don’t even get me started with the testing that’s going on in kindergarten classes with 5-year-olds).

And most disconcerting of all, in my entire 24-year career, not one graded standardized test has EVER been returned to the students, their parents, or to me, the teacher.  Also, for the past three years here in Ohio, released test questions have no longer been posted online. In addition, teachers have had to sign a “gag order” before administering tests putting their careers on the line ensuring they will not divulge any content or questions they might happen to oversee as they walk around monitoring the test.

This lack of transparency seems very suspicious to me and many educators and parents alike are beginning to agree that testing companies have been given a “full faith” free pass for way too long.

Aren’t schools supposed to be in the business of teaching and learning? If we’re forced to stop instruction to give state tests, shouldn’t a student’s results at least be used to help further that student’s academics?  Just how exactly is my student taking a high-stakes standardized test at the end of the year, the test questions of which I never see, the scored tests and essay questions which are never returned to the child, helping that fifth-grader to learn?

If you are still with me, let’s talk about Ohio’s 8-year-olds who are getting caught right in the middle of the madness. Our state legislature has mandated a Third Grade Reading Guarantee that fails an 8-year-old an entire school year even if he or she is only one point off from passing a  2 ½-hour standardized reading test (the same amount of time as a tenth-grader taking an Ohio Graduation Test), which is first administered in October.

That same 8-year-old must try to pass yet another 2 ½-hour reading test again in the spring. If the child fails again, the child must take yet another (shorter) test to try to get into fourth grade.

So, apparently, a third grader is going to fail a school year based on tests that the teacher and parents have never seen, neither the questions nor the answers, and yet, the test company held the key to the specific errors the student made and could have learned from all along the way, after the very first test was given in October?  In my opinion, this is complete and utter education malpractice.

Are the third graders failing the test or is the test failing the third graders?

Let’s add to that all the test-scoring nightmares that have been reported in state after state after state (students receiving zeros due to scoring errors, missed graduations due to erroneously failed tests, parents receiving incorrect scorecards, blank pages found on tests, appealed scores found to have been miscalculated, etc…) and what does our nation do?  It keeps shelling out millions upon millions of dollars for standardized testing.

Shouldn’t our country demand accountability from the testing company? Is simply accepting phantom test scores from assessors even good business?

One Ohio School Board member shared with me that although she asked, the testing company would not allow board members to take the same PARCC tests the students would soon be mandated to pass.  Shockingly, she was told that board members could not see a sample test in its entirety until the students piloted them. She said the legislature had, indeed, mandated that Ohio third-graders pass a reading test that not one legislator or Ohio School Board member had even seen; one that had not yet even been written.

Also, please note: If so many of our schools are seen as “failing,” yet so many of our students are using a test company’s test prep materials ($$$) which are being reported to the state via the test company’s computerized program ($$$) and then taking the test company’s multitude of standardized tests ($$$), which are then assessed by the test company’s evaluators ($$$), and then remediation is done with students using, again, the test company’s intervention materials ($$$); and are then taking the same test company’s own graduation test ($$$) that the test company has prepared the K-12 materials for in the first place……. then, just exactly who, or what, is really failing that child?  But have no fear, dropouts can later take a GED ($$$) administered by the same testing company.

As for my language arts classroom, just give me some uninterrupted time with my students, some paper and pencils, and a great book and I’ll show you what amazing things my fifth-graders can do.

I’m just a teacher, but I do propose that we (myself included) stop the education bickering, the lawsuits, the union bashing, the political polarization and the spinning of our wheels and all take a moment to at least start SOMEWHERE to be the adults in the room and start a patriotic, non-partisan revolution for lasting, real school reform on behalf of our students who are already getting slammed by way too many societal woes.

Let’s all come together to find one area, at least ONE, in which the majority of our citizenship (legislators and constituents alike) can agree will be in the best interests of our nation’s youth.

I think I know one starting place that not one person could dispute would benefit students and their learning.  I can’t imagine how anyone, other than a test company executive, could say this request is unreasonable. I hope you agree so our country can then move on and figure out a Reform #2.

So, may I, just a teacher, speak?

Transparency in Education Reform #1 : No student, in the United States of America, will be given a high-stakes standardized test by any state or testing company unless said standardized test is returned scored, and in its entirety, to the parents, teacher, and child in an efficient and timely manner.

Can we at least start there? Let’s just then see how “failing” our schools really are. Let’s publicly lay the tests out, in full K-12 panoramic view, and evaluate how many tentacles of testing are being inflicted upon the psyches of our children.  Let’s analyze if these tests are truly measuring what we would like and if these tests are, indeed, an appropriate measurement tool to be used to determine “good” or “bad” teachers or to label, or flunk, our children.  Let’s just see what exactly is wrong with the answers our students are giving, anyway. And let’s do it quickly, because we might just be failing an entire generation.

However, in the meantime, beware.  Remember that the current climate of education bashing will keep wafting down into the ears of our children until they take to heart that in those failing schools sitting in the classroom of those “bad teachers” can be found them, the “failing” students.

Is this the way we do education today in the United States of America?  Is this the way we treat the children on our watch?